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'Thomas and the Magic Railroad'

Complex plot throws charming 'Thomas' off-track

Wednesday, July 26, 2000

By Donald Hammonds, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As soon as my 4-year-old saw the trailer for Thomas the Tank Engine's new movie, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," there was to be no peace in the Hammonds household until he had a front-row seat for the opening.

"Thomas and the Magic Railroad"

Rating: G

Starring: Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin and Mara Wilson

Director: Britt Allcroft

Web Site: www.thomasthetank

Critic's Call: 2 1/2 stars


After all, Jorian is a kid whose first and last love is trains. When relatives ask what he wants for special occasions, he can whip out a little brochure, which we all know is more precious than a gold railroad spike, with pictures of all the Thomas Train pieces in it.

He keeps our family and friends cracked up with his imitation of Thomas, in which he rolls his eyes with this toothy grin on his face.

Alas for poor Jory, though -- the new movie didn't hold his attention particularly well, and judging from the reaction of the other kids his age, with parents scurrying back and forth to the potty, the refreshment stand and just out in the hallway to take a walk with restless young folk, he was not alone.

The plot involves Thomas and his friends on the Island of Sodor, the land of talking trains, being threatened by awful Diesel 10, a snappish, wise-cracking diesel engine who is bent on finding Lady, the secret train hidden away in Muffle Mountain.

Lady holds the key to preserving the magic and innocence of Sodor. She's guarded by a lonely grandfather, played by Peter Fonda, who is paying a heavy emotional price for a mistake he made that involves the cute little train.

Diesel 10 is amply prepared for his life of evil. He has some sort of shovel-like attachment on top (I didn't even know diesel trains had those) that does his dirty work for him. Of course, every villain has to have sidekicks. Diesel has the hapless Sputter and Dodge to further his antics.

As charming as this movie is, and it's quite pleasant to watch, its biggest problem is that the plot is too complicated for younger minds to follow; hence, their attention wanders. It was hard enough for me to keep track of whether we were on the Island of Sodor, in the town of Shining Time, at Muffle Mountain or elsewhere.

The other problem is that in order to set up a feeling of connectedness and familiarity, the movie introduces lots of the old favorite characters from the television show, but they don't seem to have any real purpose for being in the film. So it gets a bit confusing if you haven't seen much of the popular TV program.

In the movie's defense, however, I would say that older children, like my 6-year-old, Brent, seemed to have no problem following the movie and enjoyed it a lot. I thought that was an accomplishment for the movie makers, because Brent isn't a big fan of Thomas and had to be persuaded into seeing it at all.

The movie is helped considerably by an all-star cast -- Oscar winner Fonda; Mara Wilson, who plays his granddaughter Lily; and Alec Baldwin, who charmingly portrays Mr. Conductor.

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